Post-Cancer Treatment Blues

My life feels a little bit like a post-apocalyptic movie these days. A torched Earth smolders as survivors scan the horizon for signs of life, all but unrecognizable under a silvery ash. While grateful to be alive, they can’t help but feel a bit shell shocked. Stunned, people emerge from the shadows, wondering out loud: 

What happened?! 

It’s been over two months since I finished radiation treatment for breast cancer, and I feel like I am living in such a land, wandering around my new reality of life post-cancer treatment. I feel like I’m walking in the burnscar of the CZU Lightning Complex wildfire that happened in the Santa Cruz Mountains in August 2020. The landscape is familiar, but the devastation is pervasive, even with signs of regrowth. The analogy to cancer is stark.

I am exceptionally grateful to be alive at all, but the uncertainty of recurrence, coupled with a gnawing anger about why I didn’t catch it sooner, haunts me on a daily basis. I’d read about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among cancer patients, particularly after treatment ends; it helped to know that some irritability, worry, and depression were to be expected. As I wrote about in my last post, I’ve been feeling a bit like Jekyll and Hyde, vacillating between feeling extraordinarily grateful for life, and feeling totally down about cancer. 

Adapting to my new life post-treatment presents a slew of challenges I couldn’t quite appreciate until I was actually done with the bulk of treatment, chemotherapy and radiation. I am still in treatment, technically; about eight weeks ago, I started taking Tamoxifen, a daily anti-estrogen pill, in hopes of reducing my risk of recurrence. I may be on it for the next ten years. My current sadness and worry could be compounded by Tamoxifen, which is linked to depression and changes in mood, and I don’t doubt its influence. 

As I’m learning, there are really no guarantees of reducing your risk of recurrence, despite all the measures you take. Accepting this reality has been the hardest thing to adapt to in my new life. When I finished radiotherapy on September 23, 2020, I felt a huge sense of relief and accomplishment. It was soon overshadowed, however, with a nagging, dubious worry: did treatment work? Were there still any cancer cells in my body, and if so, how many, and where? To what degree – if any – could I influence whether these cells would go on to proliferate? How much was within my control, and how much was just random chance? And what was I supposed to do with all this newfound fear I was feeling? I’ve been wrestling with these questions daily. 

It is totally unsettling to know that there’s no promising anything worked, and that it could still come back. Only time will tell. Coming to terms with the mystery of what caused my cancer in the first place, and the ambivalence about my treatment’s efficacy, is tough. There’s a lot of grey area that I have to learn to live with, and as I’m starting to see, being mad about it doesn’t really help in the long run. I haven’t yet reconciled my anger, clearly.  

I’m a pretty tenacious, strong person; a realist-optimist. I will sit on a ridgetop in sixty mile per hour winds in a blizzard, and relish in the potential that awaits in the descent on my snowboard. I’ll pedal up a punishing mountain pitch, day after day, because I know how fun it is to ride down it. I enjoy making myself uncomfortable – pushing out of my down-filled comfort zone, stretching my seams. I am a self-proclaimed master of delayed gratification, understanding the give and take of earning your turns. I love a good challenge, and I’m not afraid to work hard for a reward. I’ve been skydiving, rock climbing hundreds of feet off the ground, and I fly through the forest on my bike like a bat – agile, responsive, completely aware of its surroundings, guided by echolocation through the trees. I am human, of course, and I do crash into things from time to time; I’ve had some pretty scary – and painful – falls.

But breast cancer? This has been a bit much. This is by far the scariest thing I’ve ever dealt with, hands down. I don’t feel like such a badass in the face of cancer. I am learning to navigate this new world of uncertainty, and it calls for more humility than I’ve ever known.

I take pride in being an athlete, and an intellectual. It has been relentlessly difficult to accept that my strength and fitness didn’t prevent me from getting sick. Equally, it’s hard for me to accept that I’m having slight symptoms of chemo brain; over the last couple of months, I’ve noticed moments of it, as much as I hate to admit it. Sometimes, when I’m watching Jeopardy!, the answers don’t come quite as quickly, or at all; I can see the first letter of the answer in my mind, but the rest doesn’t come. Then again, I’m able to recall many answers with rapidity. There’s other signs, though. When I’m writing, occasionally I have trouble thinking of a word; it may take longer to identify it. There are moments when I can’t remember a fact or detail about a topic right away that I would typically know. Occasionally, I find myself repeating things, thematic as this time in my life may be. 

It’s not constant, but I know myself well enough to notice a difference sometimes. I feel my brain working a little bit harder than usual. I do crossword puzzles and word jumbles everyday; I read; I practice my Spanish. I’ll do all I can to fight it, even if it is a normal side effect of treatment. A lot of it could be compounded by fatigue, but I hope it resolves soon.

The shame that goes with cancer is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. No holds barred, just writing about chemo brain makes me feel a little inadequate. Sometimes I feel like damaged goods, like I’m eternally flawed. There’s a feeling of failure so complete that it can blind you of your prevailing assets; like there’s something wrong with me – something terribly, irretrievably wrong. It’s torturous. I’ve gone over every detail of my life with a fine-toothed comb, analyzing everything from my past to the soup of pollutants I’ve been exposed to since my birth in 1980. The mystery of cancer is maddening. It is incessantly frustrating to have no clear answer for why I got it, or what I’m doing now that may invite it back. It makes me feel powerless. 

In a way, I feel like I’ve been marked for death. Dramatic as that may sound, when you have a roughly fifty percent fifteen-year recurrence rate according to some studies, you might feel the same. Based on my young age at diagnosis (39), large primary tumor size at resection (44 mm), metastasis to 3 lymph nodes, and Nottingham grade of 9, I don’t have the best long-term prognosis. Of the dozens of articles I’ve read on NCBI, my favorite website of late, most of them outline elevated risks of recurrence for someone in my shoes. I was Stage IIB, with ER/PR+, HER2-, BRCA-, invasive ductal carcinoma. My odds aren’t as good compared to someone who was diagnosed at Stage 1 with a small tumor confined to one breast. I didn’t catch it early, and I’ll forever regret it. Granted, my odds maybe aren’t quite as bad as someone diagnosed Stage IV. Likewise, someone who caught it early may have a recurrence, while someone who caught it late may live to die old. There are shades of grey in the world of breast cancer, and none of us know if our cancer will come back until it does or doesn’t. The research is growing, and studies can provide estimates and averages, but cancer remains enigmatic.

I’ve been reading lots of breast cancer blogs and forums about life post-treatment, trying to hear some echoes in the cybersphere. I can hear them loud and clear; it comforts me when I read about someone else feeling how I do, worrying about recurrence, or having post-treatment fatigue. PTSD is mentioned often, and I feel like I may be experiencing some level of it lately.

I’ve been feeling extremely irritable, getting riled up at things that I may usually let slide. Someone’s nose sticking out of their half-on mask? I almost see red. 

Cover your beak! I fume inside. 

Someone stares at me stone-faced and doesn’t say Hi back on the trail? 

Why does everyone always have to act too cool?! I lament internally. I really do wish people would say hello more often out on the trails, even during, or rather, especially during, a pandemic. Enough with the stoic aloofness already. 

Admittedly, I am regularly annoyed. I’m not handling any sort of stress very well; I get an immediate pit in my stomach. I’m sensitive, and find myself more defensive than usual. I’m like an injured dog who just wants to be left alone to heal. I’ve got a real case of the cancer blues. 

I felt some of it earlier during treatment, but now it’s worse than it’s ever been. Every time I don’t feel well, I wonder if it’s back. A headache, stomach ache, or even neck tension can put me on alert. My body, usually a source of pride and joy, feels tarnished by an insidious, lurking agent of death. I feel like a timebomb has been implanted within me, and I have no idea how much time is on it; it could be months, or years. 

The uncertainty I live with now is all encompassing. It feels like I’m constantly waiting for the bottom to drop out. I used to be excited about the future, like the blank slate before me was inviting instead of menacing. Now, I feel worried about the future, untrusting. It’s like getting bitten by a dog; you’re always on guard for it to snap at you again.

Pelicans Over the Pacific

Exacerbating matters is the loss of my beautiful, long hair. Though the Paxman cold cap saved my hair for the most part, it got really thin at the end and is pretty awful looking at the moment. I’ve cut it to about chin length, with my new growth spiking up a few inches long, coming in thick all over my head to my excitement. Overall, I lost probably over 75% of my hair. When I pull it back into a ponytail, it looks somewhat decent, but I don’t feel like my old self; I see yet another thing cancer has taken from me. Ultimately, I’m glad I did the cold cap treatment, as it was a blessing to keep my hair during treatment. 

When I could see my tumor, right before my mastectomy, I was so terrified by how it had started to protrude out of the skin, as if staring me in the face. I am taunted everyday by the fact that I didn’t catch it earlier, that it hid so well under a well-known and large, examined fibroadenoma. I can’t help but wonder where else in my body it may have taken up residence. Like a zombie fire, lurking beneath the forest floor after a wildfire, cancer can smolder insidiously before roaring back to life, swallowing everything whole. Recurrence often means death within a few years. 

I may flippantly joke that at least I don’t have to suffer getting old if I die young, but it doesn’t come close to easing my truest fears about dying from cancer. I think about how I’ll die, specifically; will it be pneumonia? Will I stop being able to swallow, and then die a couple of days later? Will I suffer a stroke or heart attack amid the stress of disease? Will it be sudden, prolonged, painful, or peaceful? Controlled, or random?

Or will I die from a distracted, texting driver on the road who hits me on my bike?

I’ve always had a pretty good handle on how short life is, and that we could die at any time, but I think about death far more often than I ever have these days. When I look back on everything I’ve been through this year – from diagnosis on February 3, to double mastectomy on February 26, to eight rounds of dose-dense chemo, to five weeks of radiation, to now being on Tamoxifen…it makes my head spin. I do feel like I’m walking through a post-apocalyptic world, where the scorched Earth is my poor body. 

I am alive and kicking, however, and I have an insatiable lust for life. 

I keep riding my bike, almost everyday, because it’s one of the few things I can do to instantly improve my mood, lighten my load, and put a big smile on my face. It’s been my refuge, my solace, my therapy, my motivation, and I am thankful for each and every ride. I don’t think about cancer when I’m riding downhill; I simply feel like a badass mountain biking bee-atch. I feel inspired, confident, grateful, and happy when I’m flowing on two wheels. 

There is a curious, fighting spirit in me; a positive streak, refocusing my energy to gratitude, to all the things that are going well in the world, and all the people that do say hi back on the trail; to all of the incredible living beings that inhabit this amazing planet. 

This is the flipside of the dichotomy of healing: the amazingly appreciative attitude that emerges after fighting for your life. On the other side of fear and anger is love and acceptance, a reverence for the miracle of life. I have had many days where I feel like I’m living in a dream, where I feel blessed beyond measure. I can spend hours marveling at tidepools, rock formations, birds in the forest. We had a heavenly trip to Yosemite and Mono Lake this Autumn, which felt like walking through a watercolor painting.

El Capitan
Halfdome

The recent King Tides have brought a wonderful world of exploration along the California coast. 

I feel calm, content, and free when I’m out in nature, and I prioritize time outside. There’s a childlike wonder for the universe that thrives inside me, perhaps saving me throughout this challenging experience, keeping my perspective in check. Immersing myself in the beautiful, infinitely intriguing world – its plants, animals, geology, and complex history – has provided a stable escape all my life. I feel comforted when I’m learning something new, and it always reminds me how much bigger life is than me and my “problems”, real as a problem as cancer may be. Losing yourself in a good book, or good online article for that matter, is one of life’s simplest yet most powerful pleasures; it can be therapeutic, really. I am grateful to live in a day and age where so much information is at my fingertips. Learning serves as somewhat of an antidote to self-pity; you have to focus on something beside yourself, gleaning valuable information, which then makes you happy. 

California Sunset

I am learning emotionally, too – to accept that feeling down is normal, and human, after everything I’ve been through this year. Forgiveness is paramount to my healing. I must forgive myself for not catching it sooner; for getting cancer at all. I must forgive my feelings of anger, fear, and sadness. I must forgive the collateral damage of side effects I’m experiencing post-treatment. 

I’m also realizing how grateful I ought to be for the forty years I’ve lived so far. It’s been a pretty incredible four decades so far, and the more I reflect upon my life, the more beautiful a picture emerges. Maybe it’s rose colored lenses, but I’m lucky to have lived this long, in such good health and spirit, experiencing a multitude of adventures along the way. Looking back, I feel proud of the life I’ve lived. 

Mountain biking and knowledge are pretty spectacular antidepressants, but there is nothing like love. My husband and cat – my boys – fill my heart, and our four walls, to the brim. My family are my rocks, whose encouragement and compassion mean the world to me. I’m a bit of a loner, but I am undyingly appreciative of my friends, whose camaraderie and connection makes me feel like I belong. I’m also grateful for the words of people whom I’ve never met, whose eloquence in describing their own struggles online help me put a name to mine. I am grateful that while I may feel alone sometimes, I am not actually alone. Bless the gift of kindred spirits in this world.

The most effective cure to sadness is gratitude. Just thinking about mountain biking, learning, and the love of family raises my gratitude meter, and those are just a few of my favorite things. Music, dancing, gardening, birdwatching, running, yoga, hiking, cooking…there’s always something to do. Long walks on the beach? They’re loved by so many because they are one of the simplest yet most satisfying things in the world. I love – and need – my long walks on the beach as much as I need to ride my bike downhill. 

Are gratitude, hobbies, and passions enough to take away my cancer blues? I believe so, and the more time I spend pouring myself into them, the better I feel. They serve in the very least as a positive distraction from cancer, and I’ll keep busy with them everyday. My love for life is unwavering, and if I can stay focused on that, I think I’ll ride out this wave just fine. There’s no shortage of inspiration in the world; sometimes you just have to focus harder to see it. 

Here’s to having 2020 vision – in a year that demands it.

Radiation, Breast Cancer, & The End of A Decade

I feel like a walking paradox at the moment. I’m more tired than ever, yet I’ve never felt more alive; I’m a little worse for the wear, but grateful beyond measure. I am so happy I want to shout it from the mountaintops, yet so humbled I want to sit in silence. It’s been three weeks since I finished radiation for breast cancer treatment, and two months since I finished chemotherapy. As if I don’t already feel a decade older, on October 10, 2020, I turned forty years old, officially leaving my Thirties behind. 

It’s been a long road since I was first diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, stage 2B, on February 3, 2020. I’ve written often about the importance of keeping a positive attitude, gleaning gratitude wherever you can find it, and cultivating flow and grace during this time. I’ve found these themes to be my guiding light throughout this tunnel-like process, but after months of treatment, and finally reaching the “end” of the road, I am also feeling the collateral damage my body has endured. I am simply exhausted.

Radiation was a long haul. Starting on Wednesday, August 19, I went in daily, Monday through Friday, to the Kaiser Santa Clara Cancer Treatment Center for a five-week regimen. The appointments were anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes long, getting shorter as the weeks went on. I scheduled my appointments for the afternoon, after work, and would drive the roughly forty minutes over the hill. 

I was evacuated from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire for the first eleven days of treatment, which I wrote about in my previous post, and had just returned to work after a six month medical leave-of-absence. After eight rounds of chemotherapy that I finished in early August, I was pretty beat from the start. The threat of losing our home compounded the stress of treatment and going back to work, and I definitely felt overwhelmed. I’m a tough cookie, but the shots just kept coming. 

Radiation fatigue can set in quickly for some people, or build over time, but it is some serious business. About ten days in, my fatigue really intensified. Although I’d adapted to a regular feeling of tiredness, I felt exceptionally beat, like I could fall asleep sitting up. Granted, I hadn’t been sleeping much while evacuated, as our cat would cry incessantly every night. 

The hardest part of radiotherapy was positioning my shoulder for the linear accelerator machine. I would lie supine on my back, with my arms outstretched above my head. It was important to lie still and hold position once settled, but it sometimes took several tries to confirm. The nurses were very nice, and would gently move my left arm as needed to get me in the right position. However, I’ve separated this shoulder a few times, and it would freeze up being in these awkward positions, blood draining from my arm and falling asleep as the minutes passed. It was truly painful sometimes, especially with the plastic backboard pushing into my trapezius muscle as my contorted shoulder was placed into all kinds of uncomfortable positions. When I’d finally lower my arms at the end, I’d have to physically pull my left arm back down because my shoulder was so tight. This was the most challenging part about the appointments. 

The scariest part was actually receiving the radiation. My whole left chest wall, from my lower ribs to my armpit and up to my clavicle, was treated; since the heart is on the left side, the risk of heart disease increases. Thus, breath holding is used to try to minimize exposure to the heart. The nurses spoke to me through an intercom from the other room, instructing me to Breathe In, Hold, and Breathe Normally. Knowing that my heart’s health depended upon me holding my breath just so, pushing out my chest cavity to protect it as much as possible, was a heavy load to carry. No pressure! It was much harder than holding my breath if I were standing up straight; try lying on your back and holding your breath for thirty seconds, and you’ll see what I mean. I focused intensely on keeping my breath in, and knowing how much it mattered made it all the more imperative to keep every molecule of air in. 

There was a startling moment during treatment when I had been holding my breath for over thirty seconds, and I could still hear the machine; it makes a unique buzzing sound while delivering radiation. The nurses had instructed me to exhale and breathe normally, but I could still hear the machine sounding. Reluctant to exhale, I thought it was stuck on, and kept holding my breath. 

Breathe normally, they messaged again through the intercom. Scared to let go, finally the noise stopped. I exhaled with relief, and then asked them if the machine had gotten stuck. They came in to explain that the machine can make noise when it’s not delivering radiation, kind of like warming up, and that it hadn’t been stuck on. I felt better understanding that, but it was a bit shocking at first. 

Each day got a little more efficient. The actual treatments themselves took only several minutes; most of the time was spent aligning me in the exact spot, laser beams measuring every contour with precise angles. I received several freckle-sized tattoos to help map the treatment area, too. Every couple of weeks, I met with my radiation oncologist for a check-up of my skin, which started reddening about two weeks in, subtly like a mild sunburn. Skin changes are the most common side effect from radiation, and it wasn’t too bad at first. 

By four weeks in, I was definitely getting redder, and my exhaustion was growing by the day. They’d warned me that fatigue worsens as you go, and they were right. I was tired of driving over the hill everyday, and one day in particular, I got a dead battery in the parking lot after treatment. It was one of those long days where I just felt beat, and then my car wouldn’t start after my appointment. Sitting in my car in the parking lot, I cried with surrender, feeling the build up of so many emotions. Just keep ‘em coming! I bemoaned.

I called my insurance for a jump start, and within the hour I was driving back home. The obvious symbolism was glaring, though: my battery was dead, my battery was drained. I needed a jumpstart; I was running on empty. For all the looking on the bright side that I typically do, I couldn’t deny that I was standing in the shadows. Despite my positive disposition, this whole experience was difficult, depressing, and draining. 

My usual medicine of exercise when I’m feeling down about something wasn’t fully available, with my bike awaiting repair. My carbon rim had cracked, and I was awaiting a warranty replacement from Santa Cruz Bicycles; I also sent my suspension in to Fox for servicing during this time. The skies were so smokey from wildfires that I couldn’t go for a run safely, especially since I was in radiation. There is a risk of fibrosis in the lungs if you smoke or are exposed to smoke during radiation, so I really didn’t want to breathe hard when particulate levels were at dangerous, and sometimes hazardous, levels. Without my daily endorphin rush from exercise, I felt cranky, defeated, and unfocused. I knew I needed to get outside of my situation, to escape to the hills for some blood-pumping thrills. 

What better time to demo a downhill bike?

I went to Northstar and rented a downhill bike one Sunday when the air quality was better up in Tahoe than it was here in Ben Lomond. I had never ridden one before, and after a few weeks off my bike, I was seething for some flow. I had an awesome time hitting the trails on a 27.5” Scott Gambler, my first time on that wheel size as well. I needed to hit the dirt, and it charged my batteries to be back on two wheels. It was a month before my bike would be back together in working order, the longest stretch of time off my bike in years. 

The upside of being off my bike so long? My lymphedema all but went away. I had noticed some swelling in my thumb, fore, and middle fingers at the end of July, with shooting pains down the back of my arm by early August, signs of lymphedema. I continued doing my daily regimen of stretches and exercises, but it wasn’t until I stopped mountain biking everyday that I noticed an improvement in my symptoms. It was a blessing to see such a clear correlation between mountain biking and lymphedema, to figure out what was exacerbating it; it was the only thing I was doing differently that month. 

I’ve been back on my bike for weeks now, and am being cognizant for any signs of lymphedema. I have noticed some hints of it returning after a couple of long rides, but mostly, I am symptom free. My physical therapist advised me to take frequent breaks during my rides, and to actually do the stretches while riding, when possible, like flat sections where I don’t really need both hands on the bars. So far, so good, but this is something I’ll have to keep a close eye on as time goes on. Hopefully, it will remain all but gone. 

I finished radiation on Wednesday, September 23. By the end, I was extremely tired, and my skin was really red. The nurses were so sweet, cheering me on during my last treatment. When it came time to take my final breath in and hold, they emphasized for the last time. When treatment was over, I thanked them for their care and expertise, especially during a pandemic. 

I physically felt lighter leaving the clinic after that appointment. No longer would I be driving over the hill and back everyday, and from now on I could look forward to healing. I slept in that weekend until noon, I needed it so badly, but the following weekend, I was ready to celebrate the culmination of months of treatment. 

I got my port removed on September 25, two days after I finished radiation, and exactly six months after I had it implanted. I was so ready to get that thing out! The surgery was quick, but painful. They gave me a giant lidocaine shot, which hurt like heck, and it wasn’t nearly enough. I felt everything – the incision into my chest, a few minutes of tugging pressure, and then it being pulled out of my chest. She sewed me up with eight stitches; I felt every loop of that needle through my skin. I didn’t want to ask for another shot, as that would just delay everything, so I just lay there and toughed it out. It was pretty gnarly, but I was so excited to get it out I almost didn’t care. It was just another hoop to jump through in this obstacle course.

Ron and I had an incredible weekend away to Downieville and Northstar for closing day of the season at the start of October. We stayed at the Downieville River Inn on the Yuba River, and had an awesome mountain bike ride from Packer Saddle down the Downieville Downhill. Hauling down Butcher Ranch Trail, I saw a bear standing right in the trail! I slammed on my brakes and skidded to a stop as quickly as I could without crashing, and about thirty or forty feet away, it stoically held its ground. A few seconds passed before Ron rode up behind me, and I shouted Bear! 

Startled, it sauntered uphill off the trail, and we stood to watch it for a quick minute before continuing on. Though black bears aren’t prone to attack humans, we didn’t want to linger too long. It was the second time we’ve seen a bear this Summer in Downieville; I think of all the other times we just didn’t notice them. It was really cool to see; I love animals so much! The next day, we rode Northstar, basking in the Autumn sun and bliss of riding well-maintained jumps and berms for the last day of their season. 

It was a wonderful way to cap off treatment, but the collateral damage was becoming more evident. My skin had darkened to an extreme red, and was quite itchy. I was using all kinds of creams and oils – Calendula cream, coconut oil, vitamin E oil, shea butter, aloe vera – trying to moisturize my parched skin. My skin was physically hot to the touch, and my left chest wall was swollen. The seams of my clothing were irritating, and I could only take so much hot water in the shower. I was pretty uncomfortable. They had warned me that radiation has a cumulative effect, worsening seven to ten days after your last treatment, and they were spot on. Like clockwork, I’d gone from having a mild burn to a frighteningly dark burn. As the days went on, my skin began to peel. The fatigue stuck around, despite getting exercise everyday, and felt more intense than chemotherapy on some days.

Now, I’ve turned forty, on 10/10/2020. The numbers were certainly neat: 10 + 10 = 20, and 20 + 20 = 40. I had a fantastic weekend of mountain biking, disc golf, going to the beach, and I got to see my mom, dad, and stepdad to boot. Although I’ve finished the biggest parts of treatment – mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation – now I’ve starting the next phase of treatment with Tamoxifen, an anti-estrogen pill given as chemotherapy, for the next ten years. I’ve made a lot of progress, but I don’t feel totally done with treatment. 

My youth feels a little bit like a growing reflection in the mirror. I’ve spent so much of my life with my identity tied to my youth, whether it was my athleticism, vibrant energy, or appearance, and with its light fading, I can’t help but resent its growing absence. I am happy to still be alive, but I can’t deny the significance of this moment, of shifting phases in my life. Turning forty seals the deal. I feel more lucky than resentful of aging, though, and each day brings an opportunity to experience more and grow wiser.

It’s been a lonely experience, at times, especially in the time of COVID-19, to no fault of those who love and support me. I have been so blessed with such amazing, loving people in my life! Many days I was actually alone, merely because no one could come to appointments with me or visit during shelter-in-place orders. There are so many aspects of going through treatment – mentally, emotionally, and physically – that are impossible for me to fully describe, try as I may.  I feel like I can’t quite get all the words out when it comes to conveying my experience with cancer, yet I continue to write, as it’s always been part of my process, helping me make sense of life’s major forks in the road.

Now that I’ve reached this milestone in treatment, I face the uncertainty of recurrence. It’s mildly unsettling to know there’s no guarantee anything worked, and that ultimately, I could die. I’ll see my oncologist every three months for the next two years, and will be on watch for any illness or issues; after that, I’ll go in every six months for three years, and then annually after that. I won’t be having a PET scan right now. 

It’s scary how much my future depends upon me letting my doctors know if I’m not feeling well, because I didn’t feel so well at times over the last two years, and I went to my doctor twice because I was so concerned. As I’ve written about before, nothing came of it. My bloodwork was fine, there was no family history of breast cancer, and my large fibroadenoma in my left breast had been checked regularly for years; it was also likely obscuring my cancerous tumor, so I didn’t feel it until after it had grown measurably. The assumption was that my sleep apnea was causing my fatigue, and my occasional tension headaches and bouts with nausea were from pushing myself too hard exercising with too little sleep and nourishment.

After years of being on top of all my appointments and physical exams, and feeling so in touch with my body, I still can’t believe I didn’t feel any new lump until December 2019, even though I knew something was off. It makes my blood boil sometimes, but there’s nothing I can do about it now.

Although there were several songs that exemplified my cancer journey, my Cancer Playlist helped keep my spirits up; these were some of the songs that spoke the strongest to me. Music is healing, and whether it was dancing around my living room to it playing at full volume, singing along in the car ride to an appointment, or playing along with my guitar, music helped me feel less alone.

How Do You Sleep? by Sam Smith is a song I first heard when I was floating in a hotel hot tub in Calgary Canada, at the end of January 2020, right before I was diagnosed. We had an incredible snowboarding trip with family, and I felt charged. Soaking up the heat of the hot tub, this song played loudly in the pool room, which I had all to myself that day, and I instantly fell in love with it. Though the song is about infidelity, for me it represents the last moment of tranquility I felt before my life changed.

Anyone? by Demi Lovato perfectly captured how I felt after being diagnosed – alone and somewhat desperate for compassion, for an escape. I am in awe of her beautiful, powerful voice. Fade to Black by Metallica was my anthem for a bit; that song is so beautifully structured, with words that spoke to me right through my shaking heart. I learned how to play quite a bit of the song on my guitar, and relished in trying to play along to the song in my living room. Somedays, I felt like I was fading to black myself. 

No More Tears by Ozzy Osbourne was the song I blared on the way to my first chemotherapy appointment. I’d done enough crying by then, and was ready to put my game face on and get it done. There is a victorious air to this song, of pushing through a challenge and persevering. I love the second bridge of this song, with echoes of animals filling the transition. This song just rocks!

Formation by Beyonce reminded me to keep my sense of sassiness and confidence…I Slay, I Slay echoing in my head. Anything by Beyonce will put you in a body moving mood! Blinding Lights by The Weeknd was an inspirational, energetic homage to what I was going through. I loved dancing to this song! It sounded like my battle with cancer. I equally loved dancing to Drake and Rick Ross’ Money In the Grave, a fast paced song balanced with a serious undertone. For years I thought the girl in the song said Latenight music, but Ron corrected me recently: it’s Maybach Music. Funny how we can mishear lyrics for such a long time before noticing it!

Roar by Katy Perry speaks for itself. I’m sure thousands of other women danced around their living rooms to this song, too! This is the perfect anti-cancer anthem. Savage by Megan Thee Stallion dropped in Summer, and the first time I heard it, I was blown away; such a badass song of female empowerment and celebration!

Sometimes, I felt like a savage myself – mountain biking through chemo, and keeping a good head on my shoulders. When everyone would complain about how bad 2020 was, I wanted to offer them a different perspective. Even after all I’ve been through this year, I still don’t think this was the worst year ever! Many people had it way worse than me, and others had it better than me, but life is always about making the best of what you’re given, not comparing the hand you’ve been dealt. The opportunities I had to gain wisdom, patience, gratitude, and strength were not lost on me. 

I Still Believe by Tim Cappello is a soul thumping, hopeful message of strength and tenacity, exactly what I needed to get through cancer treatments. I always think of the movie The Lost Boys, when they perform this song on the Beach Boardwalk. It makes me want to sing out loud.

Shelter From the Storm by Bob Dylan was what I felt I needed this year. I longed for refuge, for a safe harbor from violent seas. Listening to this song, and singing along with my guitar, made me feel peaceful and calm. 

Patience by Guns ‘N Roses was the embodiment of what I would need to help me through this entire process. This was all a huge test of patience, and I’ve definitely extended my patience span. When there’s nothing you can do but wait, you’ve got to adapt. It’s amazing what you can grow inured to when you have no other choice.

I am eternally altered by this experience, by these long months of fighting for my life. I’ve reached the end of a decade, my youth firmly behind me, and I have no guarantee of how much of this next decade I’ll get. Though it may not be in the forefront right now, the shadow of cancer will always be in my peripheral, in both hindsight and foresight, and carry the potential to return front and center at any given moment. I’m grateful to be alive today, but now that I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me, I’ll always be on alert for it to happen again. I never had a guarantee of another day before cancer, however; we never know when we’ll die. The only difference now is I have something specific to look out for.

I want to make the most of each new day and appreciate it for the gift that it is. My gratitude is high – for my health, for having a home that didn’t burn down, for my loved ones, for my fun lifestyle; for my eyebrows, lashes, and hair growing back in, which is awesome to see. Everyday since we got to come back home after the fire evacuation feels like a bonus day, like an extra gift. Like cancer, wildfire threatened to take all I love. I made it through this round, but the prospect of it happening again is palpable. I won’t live in fear, but I’ll always remember how it felt to almost lose it all – my life included. 

I feel empowered by finding flow and grace in my life, doing the things I love. Coming close to losing everything has redoubled my passion for my humble little life, and whatever I have left of it. Reflecting back on the last year takes my breath away sometimes – did I really go through all that? Equally, I think about how I got through all that – with gratitude for all of the graces I’d been granted, a web of loved ones to support me along the way, and lots of exercise outdoors. The healing power of movement through nature is remarkable, permeating through the mind and body. It’s also pure fun, exactly the relief I needed while carrying such a heavy load.

There were plenty of inspiring moments throughout it all; stargazing in the mountains, conversations that probably wouldn’t have been had without my cancer diagnosis; short escapes out of town that relit my fire. Ultimately, it reminded me how strong I am. Humility is in my core, but I feel pretty darn fierce right now.

Though it may be the end of a decade for me, it’s also the start of a new one.

A Close Call With the CZU Lightning Complex Fire

We got to come back home. Our house was among those still standing, a spared neighborhood. We got lucky. 

Another 925 single-family residences, and over 1,400 structures, did not; their timber and metal frames reduced to ash. 86,509 acres would burn in total from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, only reaching 100% containment on September 22 after roaring to life from lightning strikes the morning of August 16, 2020. It was an unprecedented wildfire in the Santa Cruz Mountains, one which would destroy the homes of so many, and would threaten the existence of thousands others, fortunate enough to survive such a close call. 

It was a near miss for many – something that could have easily happened to any of us living near the fire zone. Sparked by lightning, fires raged with savage abandon across the parched landscape of California, displacing thousands across the state, killing several, and marking yet another historic wildfire season. Many people lost everything in these fires, and lived through it with harrowing tales to tell. Mine is simply a tale from the perspective of a lucky evacuee in Ben Lomond going through breast cancer treatment, whose home still stands, but whose naivete about the threat of wildfire is long gone. 

As I wrote about previously, my husband Ron and I were awakened in the wee hours of August 16 to a dramatic thunderstorm with lightning strikes that would be the catalyst for the Waddell and Warrenella Fires, among other locations in San Mateo and Santa Cruz County. Collectively, they would be called the CZU Lightning Complex. 

At first we weren’t too concerned, but soon, Boulder Creek and Bonny Doon were on fire. By the evening of Wednesday, August 19, the fire’s footprint had expanded toward the San Lorenzo Valley. We could hear the menacing sound of exploding propane tanks in the distance, each resonating boom the sign of someone likely losing their home. An eerie, orange glow rose from the horizon. We were checking online for updates and watching the news; the fire was still a couple of miles away, but we presumed we’d evacuate soon.

We had time to pack up our cars with our most beloved belongings. Given that grace, we could methodically decide what we would take, and what we could leave behind. Old pictures, journals, sporting equipment, clothes, and other sentimental memorabilia made the cut. We appreciated that time to pack up without rushing. 

I had begun a 5-week radiation regimen for breast cancer treatment earlier that day, and had also returned to work as a seventh-grade Math and Science teacher after a six-month medical leave-of-absence. It had been a really long day, to say the least, and the stress of an impending wildfire compounded my exhaustion.

We went to bed under an evacuation warning, at our last check. Around 3:30 a.m., we were startled awake by a Santa Cruz County Sheriff driving through our neighborhood alerting us to evacuate. The sirens and the sound of his voice through the bullhorn are seared into my memory – the repeated uptone of the siren, him driving up to our house and shining his lights in, broadcasting:

This is the Santa Cruz County Sheriff. There is a mandatory evacuation order for this area. Please evacuate immediately, he calmly ordered, the seriousness in his voice echoing through the canyon. We hadn’t gotten a reverse-911 call or text to evacuate, so his alert was our call to go. He continued driving throughout the neighborhood repeating the alert and sirens, looking for the few driveways with cars still in them. 

Our cars already packed, we put our beloved cat Beau in his crate, and headed out in our separate cars; most of our neighbors had already left, we realized as we drove through our nearly empty neighborhood. We went to the closest and safest place I knew of: my school classroom. We spent the rest of that first night there, the best place I could think of at that hour, with Beau meowing incessantly before finally curling up to sleep for a few short hours.

The next morning, we did something I admit wasn’t too wise: we drove back home. The roads were open, people were still clearing the area, and we thought of a few more things we wanted to get. We live about a half mile from the Felton townline, which had just been ordered to evacuate, so we tried to justify our return: if they’d only just been ordered out, and we nearly lived there, we could skip back home for a few things, we figured. In retrospect, this was a stupid thing to do, and goes to show how arrogant we humans can be sometimes – at least we were. We don’t think the worst is going to happen to us; we assume that somehow, we’ll be spared. As I learned earlier this year with my cancer diagnosis, you can never assume you’ll be spared from the worst. Why I thought this fire would spare us was purely blind faith – and arrogance.

Later that day, we were blessed to be offered housing by a friend in Santa Cruz; she’d heard we were evacuated, and reached out to me. I cannot express the gratitude we felt having her place to go; it moved me to tears. We were able to catch our bearings and relax, knowing we had a place to stay. I am eternally thankful for her generosity and grace. We felt truly lucky to have a roof over our head. 

We stayed six nights at her beautiful home, watching the CalFire morning and evening press briefings like primetime television. These news conferences were the most informative and helpful source for fire updates, and we hung onto every word. CalFire’s Twitter page provided a steady stream of content, which we checked regularly. For a few nights, the firefighters stressed how concerned they were about the Highway 9 corridor above Ben Lomond; how the terrain there was so steep and inhospitable, it rendered traditional firefighting methods obsolete. It was impossible to get heavy equipment on some of the near-vertical ridges, and they couldn’t even get hand crews on the ground in spots. 

Ben Lomond Mountain is a steep-sided, long ridge that runs along the Ben Lomond Fault, part of the broader San Andreas Fault system. Starting along the beach at the intersection of Woodrow Avenue and West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, its spine continues North along Empire Grade Road to its highest point at about 2,640’ elevation. It is a beautiful mix of redwood forest, Douglas Fir, coastal chaparral, and mixed oak woodland, with sweeping ocean views in places. Some of the best mountain biking in Santa Cruz lies down Ben Lomond ridge, with steep trails snaking through loamy dirt under the forest. But firefighting? It’s an absolutely terrible place to be. 

We were on eggshells that first week, watching the fire line advance down Ben Lomond Mountain eastward toward our home. It got about a mile West of our house, according to fire maps, and that’s when we really started preparing for the worst. We heard that Big Basin State Park, home to old-growth redwoods, had burned. Redwoods are adapted to fire and will recover, but the park’s historic headquarters had burnt to the ground. Henry Cowell Redwoods was threatened, with parts of Fall Creek already afire. Winds were pushing the fire further South, and East, toward the University of California Santa Cruz campus, my alma mater. 

I bet we have a 50-50 chance our house makes it, my husband predicted. 

Who knows if those odds were correct, but it sure felt like a toss up at the time. We were genuinely scared, and hearing firefighters report their concern solidified the imminent danger. We were safe and sound, though, and that was most important. Beau was like a baby, crying all night keeping us up, then sleeping most of the day. We were exhausted, stressed out, and worried about losing our house. I spent more time looking at my phone and computer than ever – scrolling through news stories, watching videos, checking for updates. It was all-consuming. Officials warned us to brace for weeks of possibly not going back home. 

So many families in the San Lorenzo Valley and Scotts Valley were evacuated that our school start-date was ultimately delayed from August 24 to August 31; it would later be pushed back even further until Tuesday, September 8, after Labor Day weekend. Although the circumstances weren’t good, I appreciated, and needed, that extra time to prepare before distance instruction began as I continued going to Santa Clara daily for radiotherapy.

Beau had met a few neighborhood cats by this point, including the two primarily outdoor cats that lived at our friend’s house. They had a face-off from across the courtyard, meowing at each other with their fur raised, as cats do. We didn’t want him to end up fighting with one of them, and knowing our return date back home was up in the air, we decided to head up to my Mom and step father’s house in Walnut Creek. 

We spent the next four nights at their lovely home. Beau continued to cry every night, making sleep disjointed. My mom’s cat, Mocha, was somewhat welcoming to Beau, but there was tension between the two, and I had to keep an eye on them when they were together. Though extremely grateful to be housed with family, Ron and I were both so tired, longing to go home, if not only to get Beau home so he’d stop crying. 

Smokeset Behind Sibley Peak

We continued to watch the news briefings, read the newspaper, and check social media for updates. The fire was holding steady up the ridge, West of our house. They’d done some backburns in the area, and progress was being made. We were encouraged.

Then, Scotts Valley was allowed home. The next day, Felton was clear. Then, on the afternoon of August 31, we got the all-clear: we were allowed to return home! It was the longest time I’ve been away from home in fifteen years – eleven days gone. 

I cannot explain the excitement I felt driving home, Beau riding in tow. I’d left the door to his crate open so he could move about the car, and he was crying nearly the whole drive from the car’s motion. He ended up crawling onto my lap before curling up on the floorboard for the hour and fifteen minute trip back to Ben Lomond. When we got home, as soon as I opened the door, he ran inside the house just like any other day. 

Ron got home soon after in his van, and we soaked up the moment of being home. Our house and yard were covered in ash, with burnt leaves scattered about. We found a large piece of burned insulation, and a piece of a photograph in the garden. Helicopters continued doing water drops from Loch Lomond, flying over our house throughout the afternoon. Slowly, neighbors began returning home, but Boulder Creek and other communities in the fire zone would have to wait even longer. 

A Common Sight in the Yard

There was an air of excitement and gratitude, with signs popping up around the neighborhood thanking first responders, and welcoming people back home. There were lots of smiles, and looks of awe as evacuees returned, if they were lucky, to their homes. We all slept like babies that first night back. We felt indescribably happy to still have our home. 

Burnt Insulation From Someone’s House

Yet so many had lost so much. Hundreds of homes were gone; families displaced without a place to go. One man died on Last Chance Road. Others had close calls that send shivers down your spine: a man had spent hours in his pond, breathing through a metal pipe like a snorkel, as the fire ravaged his property. I cannot imagine the terror of being completely surrounded by a roaring wildfire, whose gases and smoke threaten as much as its flames. Others had bravely driven through the fire to escape, following winding mountain roads as trees and homes exploded on either side of them. We heard stories of farm animals being evacuated to the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Watsonville; of stoic neighbors who had stayed at their property to fight the fire, already having the foresight to clear substantial defensible space, and successfully fending off fire not only from their property, but their neighbors’, too. 

We were amazed by the firefighters and law enforcement who were on the perilous front lines, toiling around the clock on little sleep. I wrote Thank You cards to all the local fire departments, Sheriff’s office, and CalFire CZU, and donated to firefighters who’d lost their homes in Boulder Creek. 

Watching the press briefings from Skypark in Scotts Valley, basecamp for first responders, we were comforted by the detailed information shared with us each morning and evening, and the more we learned of their efforts, the more we saluted them. They were working in such challenging terrain, and often used the word unprecedented to describe the fire. 

The word heroic doesn’t fully convey the magnitude of first responders’ actions, and those who managed to stay and successfully defend their properties. Valiant, tenacious, and well-prepared, these tough-as-nails souls stood in the face of a burning warzone – something only they can ever understand. They share the unique yet terrifying experience of living through a raging wildfire, bonded by adrenaline, urgency, and persistence. 

Water drops from helicopters continued throughout the following days, with smoky skies and poor air quality sometimes limiting their flight. One afternoon, a helicopter was flying right over our house on its way to and from Loch Lomond, the sound of its blades reverberating through the windows of the house. We were used to their presence at this point, but I was shocked to hear what sounded like a tree limb falling on our roof: a loud BOOM! sent me running. I was looking for what it was – checking the roof, deck, trying to figure out what had happened. It sounded like a boulder or tree falling on the roof, but there was no such sign. 

Then, I noticed some mud on the side of our shed. Investigating further, I saw another dense clump of mud. In the backyard, there were dinner plate size globs of it scattered about. Finally, I noticed my car had been splattered, too. Curious, I peered closely at the roof, and saw a large scattering of mud. Aha! Improbable as it may be, mud had fallen from the helicopter’s water bucket. Loch Lomond has some pretty thick mud, and it likely stuck to the bottom of the bucket, falling off in clumps along the way to the drop. The sound it made was certainly incommensurate with the amount of mud that was there. Luckily, there was no damage. I figured it was the least that could happen considering what others had been through, and what these firefighters and flight crews were risking to protect our communities.

Everyday after, the news got a little bit better; containment was increasing, and the press briefings grew more optimistic. I liked the firefighters for their calm, straight-shooting demeanors delivering information we yearned for, watching their news updates with admiration and appreciation. Thank you doesn’t even approach what these men and women deserve from us. The National Guard was even called in to help, with a basecamp transforming the parking lot at Roaring Camp Railroads into a village.

The smoke lingered for weeks that felt like months, with oppressive air quality reminding us on a daily basis just how historic and pervasive these wildfires were. One afternoon in particular – Wednesday, September 9 – was so hazy that it got dark in the Santa Cruz Mountains around 4:30 p.m., the air so thick with ash that it resembled a volcanic eruption. There were pictures of orange sunsets trending on social media for days. People grew desperate for fresh air; some left the state altogether and drove East to escape the suffocating smoke. Even with the windows closed, air quality was unhealthy inside most homes. 

It was 4:30 p.m.! Smoke Eclipse

Ron and I took a drive up the coast in the middle of September, trying to find some fresh air. We drove up Felton Empire to Empire Grade, to Pine Flat and Bonny Doon Road, and then up Highway 1 to Waddell Beach. This was our first time driving through the part of the fire zone since we’d been home. We didn’t want to be looky-loos, and gawk at peoples’ losses. Rather, it was a somber, humbling drive, full of sadness for those who’d suffered such ill-fate. 

I’ve lived in Santa Cruz for twenty-two years, and used to live on Smith Grade on the edge of the fire zone. I’d never seen anything like it, and it was important to see it firsthand. California’s wildfires are the manifestation of climate change, compounded by years of fire suppression in some areas, and are only getting worse each year. Seeing it with my own two eyes drove home the severity of the situation, and deepened my compassion for those who’d lost everything.

Driving up the coast along Highway 1, I saw a coyote bounding through a field on the westside of the highway. Though not uncommon to see, it was likely forced there from lost habitat on the eastside. Then, at Waddell Beach, we noticed a strange figure down the beach. It looked like a large raccoon, but as it waddled behind a piece of driftwood, we noticed its unique markings: it was a badger, on the beach. Badgers are elusive animals; I’d only seen one once before. To see one on the beach, near its habitat of Waddell Creek, but likely displaced, saddened me. We slowly backed away from the poor little guy, hoping it would be alright. 

East of Scotts Creek
North of Waddell Creek, Highway 1
Rancho Del Oso, Big Basin
Badger on the Beach

Seeing the coyote and badger that day was no coincidence. Wildfires don’t just displace humans, but wildlife, too. The animals that didn’t perish in the fire now have to contend with a drastically diminished habitat and food sources. I feel just as sad for the animals as I do the humans who lost their homes. 

After weeks of monumental efforts, on September 22, the fire was deemed 100% contained. Although it will not be considered fully extinguished until soaking rains begin, which will bring its own hazards from mudslides and the like, it’s a major milestone to be celebrated. I took a drive soon after through most of the fire zone, ascending Alba Road to Empire Grade, dropping down into Jamison Creek Road before continuing up Highway 236 until the closed entrance of Big Basin.

It was a sobering drive. Burned forest surrounded either side of the road, with lost homes dotting the way. I didn’t stop to take pictures of people’s burned down homes, but I used a GoPro camera to capture the general scene as I drove through the fire zone.

I continued back to Empire Grade, where I was astounded that some peoples’ homes had made it, while their neighbors just next door had not. Some properties had all the vegetation and trees burned right up to the house, but their four walls had remained. Continuing down to Smith Grade, my college rental still stood. I then drove to Ice Cream Grade, where the fire had traveled right through the trickling creek bed, leaving a coating of waxy ash behind.

Driving back home along Felton Empire toward Highway 9, the white ashy ground stood in stark contrast to the singed redwoods towering over the forest floor, some of which had fallen like matchsticks across the canyon. Some trees had burned entirely, while others got off with a toasted understory. Fire is a natural part of an ecosystem, and trees are adapted for it, especially here. It was a melancholy sight to see, how ever well-adapted these organisms may be. 

Felton Empire

Another day, I rode my mountain bike up to the edge of the fire zone along Empire Grade, where some of the trails had been plowed through to make fire breaks. Many trees were felled. Pockets of burned trees stood in the forest. There are many signs of fire and ash throughout the mountains. 

We got lucky this time, but it could have been us. It’s been over a month since we came back home. It was unsettling to ponder losing my home, on top of the threat of losing my life to cancer. It was challenging and stressful at times, but ultimately unremarkable, and nowhere near the heart-wrenching grief that those who lost everything are going through.

I am infinitely grateful for the firefighters, first responders, and utility workers that worked so hard to protect our homes and restore essential services. Although they may say they were just doing their jobs, their hard work and expertise made a world of difference for so many people. Highway 9 has been abuzz with a steady stream of utility, PG&E, remediation, and tree-trimming trucks, all working hard to help communities get back on their feet.

My heart goes out to all of the people who lost their homes and were displaced; to the people who are forced to persevere in such devastating circumstances; to the wildlife that have died, and will die, as a result of this wildfire. Although this wasn’t the first wildfire the Santa Cruz Mountains has seen in modern times, it is the worst. Tragic, heartbreaking, catastrophic – all of those words describe this historic event, but they don’t fully embody the way that fire victims must feel. I am in awe of the courage survivors are demonstrating in the face of such adversity. Whether it was a close call, a wake-up call, or a last call, it was a reminder for everyone that the next wildfire is a mere lightning strike away.

Indeed!

Collateral Damage, Cancer, and Lightning Fires

The wind tore in through our bedroom window like a vortex, whipping the helpless curtain against my face like the beat of an eagle’s wing. I awoke with the urgency of an alarm clock, sat up in bed to look out the window, and hurriedly roused my husband from his sleep. It sounded like a tornado was raging through our yard.

Baby, wake up! Look how windy it is! I exclaimed.

The pitter patter of blowing debris, redwood cones and needles, desiccated as desert sand, were flying into our house as loud as pebbles. Then, the sky lit up. An illumination rarely seen in the Santa Cruz Mountains, lightning was putting on a show. The bellowing crackle of thunder soon followed, short-lived and indicating its proximity. We were both glued to our windows watching Earth’s awesome power manifest, slightly afraid of a tree or limb falling on our house, rapt by the spectacle before our eyes. A brief downpour ensued, followed by more gale-force winds, lightning, and thunder.

It was the morning of August 16, 2020, and it served as somewhat of a metaphor for the last six months of my life. On February 3, 2020, I was diagnosed with Stage 2B breast cancer; invasive ductal carcinoma,  ER/PR+, BRCA-, HER2- to be exact. This whole experience has been like a thunderstorm in many ways – sparking fires as collateral damage, roaring fearsomely like a lion, leaving me humbly cowering at times, its lightning striking away at my health and safety. Now, a series of unprecedented wildfires rage in the mountains West of our home, brought on by that lightning; the CZU Lightning Complex Fire has already destroyed over 100 structures, with thousands of residents displaced.

We were evacuated from our home in Ben Lomond early Thursday morning on August 20. The day before, August 19, had been like peeling off a band-aid; I’d had my first day back to work as a teacher after a six month leave of absence to deal with my cancer treatment – a professional development day without students – and was quickly overwhelmed. We were due to start teaching on Monday, August 24, under a full distance learning model. Though I consider myself to be relatively tech-savvy, the plethora of online tools – Zoom, Peardeck, Screencastify, to name a few – sent me into a tailspin. We had a staff meeting on Zoom where we couldn’t even agree on the most efficient way to take attendance, despite all having a good rapport with each other. Clearly, it was going to be a very different kind of year.

I also had my first radiation appointment that afternoon, which had been a long forty-five minutes of lying with my arms stretched out above my head, and my neck turned to the side. It was as if I’d been pulled like a rubber band, and my neck was aching like crazy. They’ll get faster as the appointments go on, but that first one is always the longest, they assured me.

We went to sleep on Wednesday night under an evacuation warning, skies filled with smoke and ash. The fire was still relatively far from us, but we were told to prepare for imminent evacuation. The pink glow of fire loomed on the horizon North of us, and the sounds of propane tanks exploding, presumably, boomed like bombs in the far distance. We had both of our cars packed up with our valuables – bikes, snowboards, old letters, pictures, and memorabilia; clothes, shoes, toiletries, and other odds and ends. We had the grace of packing up with time to spare, unlike other folks who had to rush from their homes with minutes to spare. It is a heart wrenching process to choose which items you want to take with you, and which you must leave behind, during such an ordeal.

Around 3 a.m. that night, early Thursday morning of August 20, we were awakened by a repetitive uptone siren blaring from a sheriff’s car, followed by the eerie echo of his voice through our quiet canyon in the San Lorenzo Valley:

“There is a mandatory evacuation order for this area. Please evacuate immediately.”

He repeated the order, driving methodically throughout our neighborhood to the few remaining residents with cars in the driveway. Most of our neighbors had preemptively evacuated on Wednesday. A reverse 911 call had gone out earlier in the night, but we didn’t get it. The patrol car pulled right up to our house, lights flashing, and repeated the evacuation order via megaphone.

We immediately put Beau in his crate, and got into our cars. We knew there were shelters already set up in Santa Cruz, but were worried about how our cat would react in the chaos of other evacuees and their stressed pets barking and meowing. Unsure of where to go, I went to the closest shelter I knew of: my classroom.

It’s a strange feeling being on campus in the middle of the night; the security lights aglow through a blanket of ash and smoke, illuminating pockets of haze. We settled into my classroom, set up Beau’s food, water, and litter box with a large cardboard box normally used to hold some of my rock collection. We laid our sleeping bags onto the floor, and tried to comfort Beau as he cried in anxiety and confusion. Of all times, now was one I wish I could communicate with him and tell him what was going on. We didn’t sleep really at all that night, but by first light, Beau was curled up in my sleeping bag against my stomach, as if trying to crawl into me for comfort and security. Soon after, we heard the custodians arrive, and figured it was time to go.

Although our town was still under evacuation order, we made the decision to return home and grab a few more things; there were many people out and about still, cars packed to the brim. We’d checked the fire map and saw we were at least a few miles from the fire, and by the afternoon, Highway 9 was closed at Glen Arbor Road, the turn off for our neighborhood. I had to show my driver’s license to get back in. I had the worst tension headache from the radiation visit the day before, returning to work, and of course, the stress of evacuating. Though not the wisest choice, I took a nap in my bed, catching up on lost sleep, before getting up in the afternoon to drive over the hill to Santa Clara for my second radiation appointment at the Kaiser Cancer Treatment Center. I was astounded by the hoards of cars, RVs, and trailers filling parking lots; cars full of surfboards, bikes, kayaks, filled with as many valuables as could fit. The urgency was palpable as I drove North over Highway 17.

By the time I returned home, ash and smoke were ominously filling the valley. A compassionate, generous, and gracious friend of mine in Santa Cruz reached out to me, offering us a place to stay. She was taking her family out of the area to escape the suffocating and unhealthy air quality, and said we could stay as long as we needed.

I was so moved by her grace; we drove down that afternoon to her nice home in Santa Cruz, where we are safe and sound now, Beau included. Anxious about the status of our home, currently about a mile from the CZU Lightning Complex fire burning west of Highway 9 as of today – Sunday, August 23, 2020 – all we can do is wait. Officials have repeatedly noted it may be weeks before we can return to our homes. With the start of the school year delayed for at least a week, who knows when I will start teaching again. We are making arrangements to likely head up to mother and stepfather’s house in Walnut Creek next.

As we wait for next steps, I reflect back on the last six months of cancer treatment amid a global pandemic. Like the ferocious winds of our recent thunderstorm, cancer uprooted my sense of stability and invincibility, threw everything up in the air, and reminded me I am not completely in charge of my life. I’ve worked hard to find flow and grace throughout this adventure, but I haven’t come out unscathed. The collateral damage of cancer treatment is revealing its insidious side effects, much like the wildfires sparked by lightning that continue to burn in the Santa Cruz Mountains and throughout California.

As our governor Gavin Newsom eloquently surmised, “If you don’t believe in climate change, come to California”. No one deserves these fires, but they signal the collateral damage of years of pollution and abuse to our planet. Scientists have been warning us for years that fires like these would become more widespread and destructive. How severe, how long, and how recoverable they will be, like my own side effects, remain to be seen. 

I finished my eighth round of chemotherapy on August 5. It was slightly anticlimactic; I wasn’t expecting to feel a huge sense of relief or accomplishment, but I was excited to reach the milestone. It was also my longest appointment yet; they’d forgotten to turn on the cold cap machine, and there was a delay in getting my chemo ready, so I was there for seven hours from start to finish. Then, the nurses sang the Graduation Song to me, but called me Karen instead of Katrin, something I’m used to after having my name butchered for years. It wasn’t a big deal, and bless them for working during a pandemic! I am just extra sensitive these days.

I left feeling like I’d reached a checkpoint of my treatment, but humbled enough by the experience to know I might be back someday. I won’t say I’m done with chemo, for I heard enough women talk about being back for chemo years later in the infusion clinic. I’m not superstitious, but I believe humility is important here. I didn’t like the certificate of completion they presented me with; it seemed like tickling the tiger’s tail. Though I finished my currently prescribed chemo regimen, I won’t gloat that it’s my last, or talk about how I’m beating cancer. Only time will tell. 

I started a five-week radiation therapy regimen on Wednesday, August 19, where I’ll go in for daily, short appointments, Monday through Friday. This week, I also returned to work after a six month leave of absence, including summer vacation. Aside from being a toddler, this was the longest continuous stretch of time off in my life, where I wasn’t working, in school, or both. It hasn’t been a vacation, but there’s been many moments I’ve enjoyed.

This will be my fifteenth year of teaching. I’ll dive into the world of distance learning as a Seventh Grade Math and Science Teacher, delivering lessons via Zoom, at some point. This is the new reality for most students and teachers in the United States, but a return to in-person instruction is surely the ultimate goal on the horizon. When that is safe to do so remains a contentious topic of debate and careful weighing of risks, restricted by the parameters of an inadequately funded public school system that needs more resources to protect everyone on-campus from COVID-19; and, of course, how this fire behaves. 

The last day I was in my classroom with students was February 13, 2020, and I don’t know when I’ll meet my new students in-person. I do know it’ll be an adjustment for me going back to work, back to the routine, but I look forward to focusing my energy on something other than taking good care of myself. I yearn for that sense of normalcy, of living my life free from the tunnel of cancer treatment. We are all yearning for a sense of normalcy after living in some form of shelter-in-place during this pandemic, and now having gone through the stress of evacuating our homes. The coupling of these challenges has tested me in ways I’m still uncovering. 

It hasn’t been a tunnel all the way, however. I’ve had some profound, enlightening realizations during this time – about life, myself, and how I want to continue living, should I have that chance. I think every cancer patient goes through something like this. Your biggest fear is death, but once you reconcile with that, it heightens your gratitude, enriches the love in your relationships, and deepens your patience. It’s also difficult, depressing, and defeating, at times. Balancing these emotions calls for finding flow and grace wherever you can; sometimes you have to look a little harder to find them, but they’re always there in some shape or form. As usual, mountain biking continues to be a huge source of flow and grace for me.

Reflecting back on my treatment so far, I am extremely grateful for the good graces I’ve been blessed with. Between having a place to stay right now, the delay of the start of the school year, and the support and love of family and friends, I have been quite lucky. My sister went above and beyond and started a GoFundMe account for me and Ron to help us with whatever unforeseen costs may be associated with this fire and our evacuation, and to help with costs already accrued from cancer treatments. It moves me to tears how kind and giving people have been; I almost don’t feel worthy. Gratitude doesn’t express how much it means to me.

Having a place to stay right now is another huge blessing. I am so grateful for having four walls and a roof over our head, especially with Beau. Although he has been crying every night, keeping us from getting a thorough night’s sleep, I am so relieved he is with us and out of the fire zone. It’s been a stressful time, and we worry about our house, checking the fire maps and news often. It is completely out of our control, but we still spend a great deal of time everyday looking at our phones or computers, gathering all the information we can. We are filled with appreciation for the hundreds of firefighters working to defend our communities on the front lines.

I feel sad for everyone who’s already lost their homes, and equally so for the wildlife. It breaks my heart thinking about the damage at iconic state parks like Big Basin, reported to be badly damaged. Statewide, thousands of people are in the same boat as us, wondering whether they’ll have a home to go back to. It’s a dynamic and changing situation, with many ramifications yet to unfold, and we will all be inexorably linked after this shared experience.

It’s crazy to think just a week ago we were still enjoying the Summer. I was lucky to get outside a lot this Summer and recreate in beautiful places. From mountain biking in the Santa Cruz Mountains, to beach days in Santa Cruz, to out-of-town adventures in Shasta, the Tule River, Lake Tahoe, and Downieville, I’m happy for what we’ve been able to do in spite of everything.

Celestially, it’s been a banner year. From the pink supermoon back in February, to the Eta Aquarids meteor shower in May, to the cameo of the comet Neowise, to the streaking fireballs of the Perseid meteor shower in August, there’s been no shortage of excitement in the sky. I love knowing how infinite the universe is, and how tiny we are in comparison.

We were lucky to see the beautiful comet Neowise several times before it faded out of view, gone for another 6,800 years. My phone camera certainly doesn’t capture its brilliance; when viewed through binoculars, it was exceptionally phenomenal! Seeing it from the Santa Cruz Mountains was good, but from the total darkness of a new moon in Mt. Shasta was breathtaking. Its tail was so long; its nucleus so bright. I found it remarkably rewarding to see, and made a point to visit with it several evenings.

We went to Mt. Shasta for a California Enduro Series mountain bike race, a place I’d never ridden before. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to complete the race with all of the fatigue I’d been having with chemo. Fellow mountain bike racers know how hard these races can be, but at least this race had a few lift-assisted race runs being at Shasta Bike Park, and only two climbs. I raced in the Expert Women’s category, and pre-rode all but one of the race stages the day before with Ron. We had a super fun time together, and it was awesome to see Neowise again at night. 

Mt. Shasta

On raceday, I lagged through my first stage, the only one I hadn’t preridden the day before, of course. The next four stages were better, although I didn’t want to crash and possibly rupture my port, so I metered myself carefully, balancing between charging fast, and staying in control while dirt-surfing new terrain. The volcanic dirt was slippery, deep, and unavoidable. That’s one of the things I love about mountain biking – how well it connects to geology. The geology of a region determines how you can ride it. The terrain from location to location varies in both subtle and overt ways, but Mt. Shasta was surely the antithesis of the loamy, redwood forest dirt of Santa Cruz. It was a fun, challenging race, and I did really well on my final stage, the Downhill, which felt great. I was happy with fourth place at the end of the day; I hadn’t expected to make the podium. Although I could’ve ridden faster, I was proud of how I did considering the circumstances. 

Ron and I set out the next week for a camping trip with my sister and her family, my mom, and stepdad, on the Tule River in Sequoia National Park. It was hot, beautiful, and perfect; the Tule River glistened with refreshing beads of water, flowing freely and steadily. I love water, but I especially love rivers. Playing all day in the sun, jumping in the river, lizarding on warm rocks, only to repeat the cycle again, was exactly what I needed. I think the cold water even helped with my bone pain, a side effect from the dose-dense Taxol infusion I had two days before going camping. Cold therapy helped save most of my hair, and I believe it also helped my musculoskeletal pain. It was an amazing camping trip. Ron and I even did a short bike ride up the Wishon Trail. 

Tule River Heaven

We had so much fun camping, we headed out a few days later for Downieville, Lake Tahoe, and Northstar. We had an incredible ride down the Downieville Downhill, getting dropped off at about 7,000’ at Packer Saddle, descending some sixteen miles down to the tiny town of Downieville at 2,900’. I’ve done this ride dozens of times, and it never gets old; it only gets more fun! The more you know a trail, the better, and faster, you can ride it. We camped off a dirt road off Highway 49, and rode Northstar Bike Park the next day, a total blast. The perfect end to a sweaty, dusty day on the slopes? A dip in Lake Tahoe! Absolute heaven. These are the moments I live for.